The accepted critical thinking is that John Carpenter directed a run of bona fide classics in the first eight years of his career, beginning with the uber-low-budget but bitingly funny ‘Dark Star’ in 1974 and peaking with ‘The Thing’ in 1984. This much is true.
The accepted critical thinking was that it was all downhill from there. Which has some basis, given that ‘The Thing’ remains – for me and for many Carpenter fans – his finest work. But how accurate is the critical shorthand that the 70s and early 80s were Carpenter’s golden years, the rest of the 80s were an exercise in diminishing returns and as for the 90s … fuhgeddabahtdit?
A friend of mine likened the experience of going to see a John Carpenter movie in the 90s to going to a Nottingham Forest match: “You remember the 70s when they were world class and you kid yourself that it can happen again, but at heart you know you’re going to be disappointed.”
And I must confess, that’s pretty much how I felt. ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ disappointed me first time I saw it. Likewise ‘Vampires’.
To this day, I haven’t seen Carpenter’s remake of ‘Village of the Damned’. First time I saw ‘Ghosts of Mars’ I wondered whether I was watching a feature film or a 100-minute video for some obscure Norwegian death metal band.
I’ve since come to appreciate ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ as a Lovecraftian nightmare, ‘Vampires’ as a horror-western and ‘Ghosts of Mars’ – for all its studio backlot aesthetic and fuck-awful soundtrack, as a massive deconstructionist joke at the expense of the studio, the critics and the audience. Small wonder Carpenter didn’t direct another film for a decade, but kudos to him for having the balls to fuck everybody off – and I mean everybody – in such iconoclastic style.
It’s worth noting that for everyone today who (rightly) hails ‘The Thing’ as a masterpiece, critics and audiences pissed on Carpenter’s chips when it was first released, voting with their greenbacks at the box office for Steven Spielberg’s cuddly, merchandising-friendly alien and giving the big fungoo to Carpenter’s ice-bound slab of paranoia.
What should have been a commercial safe bet – an adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘Christine’ – fared little better, even though the film features some brilliantly executed scenes of tension; nor did the character-driven, relationships-based ‘Starman’ find favour with audiences. Carpenter saw the 80s out with ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ (martial arts and fantasy all wrapped up in a bundle of genre-busting fun), ‘Prince of Darkness’ (think the dark religious secrets of ‘The Fog’ crossed with the besieged urban aesthetic of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’) and ‘They Live’ (the kind of dystopian satire George Orwell might have written if he’d demonstrated a facility for fight scenes and snappy one-liners). Granted, none of these films are quite up there with ‘The Thing’, but for fuck’s sake they’re kick-ass pieces of cinema. I honestly cannot understand why the cinema-going public of the day were so lukewarm.
However, they were; and it’s understandable that a certain cynicism crept in during Carpenter’s work in the 90s. Like I say, I never got round to seeing ‘Village of the Damned’, but I’m pegging 1996’s ‘Escape from L.A.’ as the first truly pitiful Carpenter film. The fact that he followed it, a year later, with ‘Vampires’ should have been a cause for celebration. Predictably, though, the critics got the knives out, audiences stayed away in droves and it was reckoned another dud.
Ladies and gentlemen, 600 words into this review I’m here to tell you that ‘Vampires’ – while not perfect – is still a decent chunk of red-blooded entertainment, nicely shot, peppered with jet black humour and boasting two stand-out set-pieces dragged out to squirmily tense effect. The first, taking up the first 15 minutes of the film, demonstrates vampire hunter Jack Crow (James Woods) and his team’s down-to-a-fine-art method of vampire killing: find a hive, go in slow and easy, spear any vampires you find with a crossbow bolt attached to a hawser and use the winch on the front of your pick-up truck to drag them out into the light. Result: bloodsucker flambé.
Their mission successfully completed, Jack frets that they didn’t find the master (kinda like the team leader of the undead). His colleagues are less concerned and they head back to their motel for an evening of drinking and carousing with hookers. (Vampire killers party hard, y’all.) Undercover of the night, vampire master Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) crashes the party and lays waste to everyone but Crow, his right hand man Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and party girl Katrina (Sheryl Lee) who has been bitten but provides a psychic link to Valek.
With Crow’s Catholic church paymasters tight-lipped as to Valek’s motives, new boy Father Guiteau (Tim Guinee) appointed to keep tabs on them, and a maximum of 48 hours until Katrina turns, Crow and Montoya set out to track down Valek. When they discover that he’s after an artefact that will allow vampires to walk in the sunlight, the pressure redoubles and all bets are off.
Here’s what’s wrong with ‘Vampires’: a mercifully short mid-section which is heavy on exposition, light on humour and not that engaging, and a gloves-off vampire-killing climax that’s so elliptically edited you have to wonder whether the original footage just didn’t work and Carpenter and his editor are doing their best to disguise the fact.
Here’s what’s fucking great about ‘Vampires’: an impressive opening sequence; a prolonged set-piece near the end where Guiteau acts as bait to lure vampires into an elevator shaft where Crow can harpoon them and Montoya haul them out into the light, the entire scene played out against the gradual onset of dusk; the eminently entertaining sight of James Woods slapping a priest around to get information …
… the luscious Sheryl Lee as the sexiest vampire this side of Soledad Miranda; some salty dialogue (“hey padre, when I was kicking your ass back there, did you get a little wood, a little mahogany?”); and a terrifically hissable villain in Thomas Ian Griffith.
‘Vampires’ is a guilty pleasure, a B-movie, an unapologetically politically incorrect throwback to the 70s. And why the hell not? That’s when Carpenter was in his element. Again, it’s an easy critical shortcut to call John Carpenter a throwback. It’s also kind of missing the point. He always was. In his 70s heyday, Carpenter was looking back to the 50s and the work of his hero Howard Hawks, particularly ‘Rio Bravo’.
It’s an irony that Carpenter has never made a western, since most of his films are westerns at heart. ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ substitutes cops for cowboys and hoods for Indians, but its condemned station house is every inch the besieged fort. Scientists and aliens in ‘The Thing’? Cowboys and Indians, but with the Antarctic standing in for the Plains. The implacable, unfeeling, unstoppable Michael Myers in ‘Halloween’? Every nameless stranger who’s ever ridden into town, faster on the draw than anyone else and driven by a vengeance unexplained until the final act. Zombie leper sailors in ‘The Fog’? The outlaw gang riding back into the town that turned them in. The iconography is explicit in ‘Vampires’.
There’s barely a single frame in Carpenter’s filmography that doesn’t owe to old school Hollywood’s vision of the Old West. Carpenter is making a comeback this year with ‘The Ward’. Here’s hoping it’s a success. Here’s hoping the man gets a chance to saddle up, pull those pistols and the make the western that’s always been inside him.